Military veterinarians refocus on stability operations

Officers learn to work cross-culturally for the long term
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A stepped-up focus on stability operations by U.S. military deployed in foreign countries is bringing new energy to global veterinary medicine.

About a year ago, the Army Veterinary Corps, in keeping with a directive from the Department of Defense, began the process of instilling in its officers the skills, knowledge, and cultural competence the veterinary soldiers need to bring about long-term benefits for the people they're working with.

Capt. Tucker teaching in West Africa
Capt. Thomas "Rick" Tucker teaches about bovine artificial insemination during a deployment to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

Veterinarians in the U.S. armed forces have for years conducted animal- and public-health related operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the world, working to help ensure a safe food supply for the troops and treating the livestock that are the lifeblood of the people in those regions.

Now these veterinarians are learning how to more effectively promote stability in the countries where they're deployed.

"All of our units now have as one of their core missions to provide everything that could be encompassed in stability operations, all the way from vaccination and deworming programs to assistance in infrastructure rebuilding," explained Col. Bob E. Walters, director of Veterinary Service Activity for the Defense Department.

We don't want to do things that could hurt local farmers or herders, which is where the cultural context comes into play. We need to make sure we work by, through, and with these people, and that we don't impose our Western standards on them.


The philosophy behind the push, according to Col. Walters, is to lay the groundwork for an eventual troop withdrawal. "How do you build the infrastructure so that when you leave, the Afghans or the Iraqis can take over and continue to execute these programs?" is the question driving the military's focus in these two nations and elsewhere, he said.

To that end, Veterinary Service Activity has been working with the Georgia and North Carolina State veterinary colleges on a revamped course that teaches veterinary officers how to fulfill this mission.

Participants in the Veterinary Service Activity learn how to take blood samples from chickens—an important source of food in the developing world.

Maj. Paul J. Hollier, chief of stability operations for the VSA, started overseeing the course in 2009, and he's tailored it to meet the DoD's objective. According to Maj. Hollier, graduates of U.S. veterinary schools receive training and education that prepares them to work in the West, but this training may not always translate effectively to different contexts.

"We have a strong background that can be applied to an international development setting, but there are certain skills and knowledge that you need to apply to an international background," he said. "That's what we're attempting to do here—bridge that gap between the veterinary education we have with those few key skills and bits of knowledge to apply to an international setting."

For instance, large-scale animal agriculture operations are the norm in the United States, but a veterinarian deployed overseas may be assisting a farmer who owns a small number of goats, cattle, and poultry. Maj. Hollier says to be effective, the veterinarian must understand how that small farm works within the broader context of the local culture and economy.

"We don't want to do things that could hurt local farmers or herders, which is where the cultural context comes into play," he said. "We need to make sure we work by, through, and with these people, and that we don't impose our Western standards on them."

This past June, some 30 members of the Army, Army National Guard, Air Force, and Public Health Service spent four days at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine as the first class to learn how veterinary medicine can facilitate stability operations.

Capt. Thomas "Rick" Tucker spent several years as a large animal practitioner in California before joining the Army three years ago. Capt. Tucker is a member of the 91st Civil Affairs Battalion, and he's served in Afghanistan and several countries in Africa. In all that time, Capt. Tucker was not instructed in specific ways veterinary medicine could be used to promote stability in areas where he was deployed.

"We talked a lot about the breadth of knowledge that veterinarians have and how we should be very successful internationally at creating stability in these areas, because we do go to a lot of areas where food security is a major issue," said Capt. Tucker, who attended the June class. "This course took those thoughts that we should be productive in those areas as veterinarians and laid out ways we can do it."

Capt. Tucker and his fellow classmates learned not only about national economies and agricultural production systems but also how to perform necropsies and specimen collections on chickens and goats—animals common in developing nations but not an emphasis in U.S. veterinary education.

They were instructed about the importance of cultural sensitivity, how to communicate despite language barriers, and the need to collaborate with U.S. and host nation agencies as well as nongovernmental organizations.

This shift in the Defense Department's focus means uniformed veterinarians will understand that their missions are larger than working with farmers for more efficient livestock production or teaching local veterinarians or paraveterinarians methods of rabies diagnostic testing in dogs. For Col. Walters, it gets at the bigger question: "Why are we doing this?"

"It's a realization that these missions have value" beyond a veterinary objective, he said. "(This course) is a process by which we're trying to ensure we've got those skill sets that are partly veterinary medicine, partly other skills, to partner cross-culturally with people that have different beliefs and different ways of doing animal medicine."

The plan is for all Veterinary Corps officers to eventually take the course, and continuing education classes on these core competencies will also be available. The next course is planned for late January and will include an overview of agricultural production systems in the developing world.